May 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Welcome to the month of May, also known as Mental Health Month.
President Obama even signed a proclamation declaring May “Mental Health Awareness Month.” His statement included the following:
For many, getting help starts with a conversation. People who believe they may be suffering from a mental health condition should talk about it with someone they trust and consult a health care provider. As a Nation, it is up to all of us to know the signs of mental health issues and lend a hand to those who are struggling.
Well said. We might add that words like “suffering,” “struggling,” and “those” perhaps perpetuate negative stereotypes. If we were President—which, of course, we’re not—we might play with the wording:
For many, finding support starts with a conversation. People who believe they may have a mental health challenge might talk about it with someone they trust and consult a health care provider. We all face obstacles at times, and knowing the signs of mental health issues allows us to help ourselves and others.
Our favorite aspect of Mental Health Month is the daily tip offered by Mental Health America. Click here to access all the tips for May. Consider writing each day’s tip on a sticky note and posting it on your bathroom mirror first thing in the morning. Then live the words.
Here are the tips for May 1-10:
1) Call or e-mail a good friend.
2) Reminisce about something hilarious that you’ve seen or done.
3) Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
4) Hold doors open for people.
5) Swap your normal cup of coffee for decaf.
6) Spend ten minutes on a funny website.
7) Eat a salad for lunch or dinner.
8) Take care of your spirit through religion, meditation, or connecting to what you find meaningful.
9) Try to identify the positive aspects of a challenging situation or circumstance.
10) Take ten minutes out of your work day to take a break; consider taking a walk.
And we’ll add one of our own, in celebration of May, spring flowers, and the beauty of growth:
Find a flower—breathe in the smell, notice the color and texture, touch the stem and petals; carry the memory of that flower for the rest of the day.
April 2, 2013 § 1 Comment
The odds were stacked against Antonio Lambert from the start. As a child in Portsmouth, Virginia, he was sexually and emotionally abused. Neglected by his family, he grew into a street-toughened gang member with a driving need for drugs.
By the time he was 17, Antonio had been shot nine times and sentenced to 22 years in prison, where a doctor diagnosed him with depression. After 16 years of incarceration, he emerged feeling lost, hopeless, and desperate to find drugs. He found them—but the high never lasted long enough.
Something had to change or else he’d end up dead or back in prison.
That’s when the call came. His mother had seen a TV ad for Teen Challenge USA, a Christian-based recovery program, and she gave him the phone number. Antonio dialed the number and decided to jump in with both feet; he moved to Greensboro, where Teen Challenge USA had a program. After he completed it, a friend showed him an ad for peer support specialists at a local mental health agency, Envisions of Life. Antonio grabbed the opportunity, even though it paid less than he was making as a warehouse manager. Being a peer support specialist felt like the right fit.
The odds were changing in his favor.
In 2007, Antonio attended a training talk by Steve Harrington, chief executive and founder of the International Association of Peer Specialists. Steve saw something special in Antonio and signed him up as a keynote speaker at an event in Michigan.
“I didn’t even know what ‘keynote’ meant,” Antonio later recalled. “I thought I might have to sing.”
For the people who attended the event, there was music in his words. They drank up the hope in his story and pulled him aside to ask for help with their loved ones. Along with being a peer support specialist and trainer, he was now a public speaker. His reach increased in December 2011, when the New York Times profiled him as part of its Lives Restored series. (Click here to read the article.)
Nowadays Antonio lives in Delaware. He travels the country, training peer specialists, telling his recovery story, speaking at conferences, and doing consulting work. He and Steve Harrington have formed Recover Resources, a company that sells peer support manuals, DVDs, and other educational materials.
We asked Antonio to answer a few questions via e-mail, and he readily agreed, sending his answers from the iPad he carries on his many travels.
Do you ever get back to Greensboro? Yes, I do get back to visit often. I work for an accreditation body by the name of CQL (the Council on Quality and Leadership); we accredit over 200 companies in North Carolina. I also do consulting work for Chris’s Rehabilitation Services in Greensboro. I visit with family and friends when I’m in town—and I go fishing with my best friend, Mr. Harry Lucas.
Any chance you’d be willing to come speak at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro? I trained a few people in peer support at MHAG. It would an honor to speak there.
What have you been up to in the past year? I’ve been doing curriculum development and pilot tests for a SAMHSA grant through the International Association of Peer Specialists. I just completed a pilot training at an organization called Community Access, which is the mother company for Howie the Harp Advocacy Center.
How did the New York Times profile of you in December 2011 impact you? The publicity scared me at first because it was so hard to believe. But, as everything began to fall into place, I saw that the story was getting a lot of people to see what peer support can do, and to understand that people are really hurting and searching for healing help. It also educated a lot of people about forensic peer support. It opened all kinds of doors for me—it also opened the doors for countless peer specialists all over the world!
How many peer specialists do you estimate you’ve trained this year? Coming up on 60.
What do you enjoy most about training peer specialists? Watching students who feel like they can’t do it, and then they get that moment of breakthrough and bloom right before my eyes! I feel like a father watching his child take his or her first steps.
What advice would you offer a beginning peer support specialist? Be careful not to forget your own recovery while assisting others with theirs.
What’s the most rewarding thing about the work you do? Watching people take their independence back and walking with it!
What’s the greatest challenge you face in your life? Remembering to stay ready for this monster called addiction that’s waiting to kill me any chance it gets.
What has been the single most important element in your recovery? Spirituality.
February 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Guests bid silently on auction items that ran the gamut from jewelry to gift certificates to sculpture.
The big items—three works of art, a week at a beach house, and diamond earrings—went up for live bid.
And lively it was, with bidding sailing into the three and four-digit range. Isti Kaldor’s painting, Bluebird, went for $1,400, setting a record price for the evening.
There were canapés and cupcakes, balloons and bonhomie.
The room reverberated with conversation and the dance-inducing rhythms of the Soul Central Band and Jaybird.
But those who wanted a quiet moment managed to find a place to themselves.
One couple bought a guitar signed by Los Lonely Boys as a surprise gift for their daughter, who wants to learn to play.
By the end of the evening, everybody went home with something—whether an irresistible auction item or the memory of a night well-spent for a worthy cause.
January 31, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Imagine a room full of people who have overcome trauma, addiction, and extreme mental health challenges, united in their desire to help others recover. Imagine them bonding, learning, and supporting each other. Imagine them telling their recovery stories—voices breaking, tears flowing—while the others cheer them on.
Welcome to peer support specialist training.
From January 21 to 25, nineteen people attended a peer support specialist training in High Point, offered jointly by the Mental Health Association in Greensboro and RHA Behavioral Health. Sarah Bobo, director of the High Point Crisis Walk-In Center, led the training. Mary Seymour, director of GROW at MHAG, assisted.
Extended discussions and small-group activities were the order of the day, covering topics from self-awareness to crisis management. “I don’t want y’all to experience death by PowerPoint,” Sarah explained of her hands-on, free-wheeling style.
During the 40-hour training, participants pondered questions such as, What role do nonverbals play in a peer support session? What’s the difference between advice and support? How should spirituality be approached?
In one activity, designed to show the power of a strengths-based approach, participants paired off and talked about three strengths they observed in each other. In another, the class broke into four groups; each group marketed themselves as the best peer support specialist team, highlighting the skills needed for the job.
On Thursday afternoon, people shared their recovery stories, telling what they’d struggled with and how far they had come. Nina showed a portrait of herself she’d drawn a couple of years ago. “A monster—that’s what I felt like,” she said. “I don’t see myself that way anymore.”
There were stories of abuse and PTSD, bipolar disorder and addiction, incarceration and involuntary commitment, depression and suicide attempts. All ended on a positive note, of finding hope and inner strength. Running through all the stories was the thread of healing through helping others.
Laughs, tears, and four boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts prevailed at Friday’s graduation ceremony. Sarah hugged each participant as she handed out graduation certificates. Many chose to say a few heartfelt words.
“You guys changed my life,” said Jackie.
Patrick looked around the room with his warm, steady gaze. “It’s a blessing to be on this journey with you all.”
Sarah H. commented, “I’m leaving with a lot of family I didn’t have before.”
“This is a big deal to me because I didn’t go to college,” said Madonna. “And now I have something that comes out of mental illness, something I can go into the workforce with.”
People lingered after the ceremony, even with sleet threatening to slicken the roads, because they just didn’t want to let go—of each other, of the moment, of the triumph of turning life’s hardships into something rich and meaningful.
January 8, 2013 § 6 Comments
The following opinion piece by Mary Seymour, Director of GROW at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro, appeared in the January 6, 2013, edition of the Greensboro News & Record.
I have been in the headlines more times than I can count in the past few weeks. I should be happy for all this coverage of me, but, frankly, I’m not. It’s not the way I want to be characterized.
You see, I’m one of “the mentally ill”—that big, scary-sounding, undifferentiated group that currently seems to be synonymous with inexplicable violent behavior and unfathomable acts of destruction. We’re a large cohort—one in five American adults, per the government’s latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health—and we encompass a huge range of symptoms and diagnoses. We are four times more likely to be the victims of violence than to perpetrate it, according to a recent meta-analysis at John Moores University in England.
Can people with mental health challenges be violent? Absolutely. Was Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook, mentally ill? I would guess so. I suspect his past will reveal that neither nature nor nurture was on his side. But Lanza’s story, in all its awful mystery, is uniquely his own. He is not a stand-in for me or any of the estimated 20.9 million adults dealing with mental health issues in this country.
I have never felt the urge to push a person in front of a subway, set fires, or shoot people. I don’t talk loudly to myself or gesticulate wildly or dress bizarrely. People don’t know I have a mental health diagnosis because I don’t fit their stereotype. When I choose to reveal that I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, people often say, “I never would have known. You seem so normal!”
No matter how many times I hear it, I’m still speechless.
My story is one I’ve told in Newsweek and recounted to many community groups in an attempt to destigmatize mental illness and teach that recovery is possible. Yes, I’ve known insanity. I’ve had voices talk to me and seen eternity in the periphery of the sun. I’ve been locked in a psychiatric ward and shuffled dim hallways in a sedated haze. I’ve lived in depression so deep and vast that I longed to die.
And I’ve also triumphed. I’ve worked for 30 years as a writer and editor, raised a son, trained a rescue horse, taught art and creative writing, and earned a master’s degree in counseling from UNCG. In June I started working as a program director at the Mental Health Association in Greensboro, where I use my experience to help others in recovery. I can’t imagine better, more fulfilling work.
Now the unaccountable actions of Adam Lanza, William Spengler, and other violent-minded citizens have brought a firestorm of media attention our way. Most of the publicity has shined a much-needed spotlight on the nation’s inadequate mental health care system. Hopefully this will lead to early intervention, wraparound services, and more compassionate care for people with severe, persistent mental illness.
And yet I wonder what impressions will linger in the weeks and months after the spotlight fades. Will violence and mental illness continued to be linked in the public mind? Will the same stereotypes about “crazy” people remain?
My hunch is we won’t be eradicating stigma around mental illness anytime soon. But, as anyone working a 12-step program will tell you, recovery is about replacing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness with positive action. As the late pop artist Andy Warhol wrote, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
In that spirit, I have three simple requests for change:
1) Be sensitive with your language around mental illness. Avoid using pejorative labels like drama queen, crazy, borderline, and addict. Don’t call us “the mentally ill.” Instead, use person-first language such as “people with mental health challenges” or “individuals with mental health diagnoses.” Better yet, don’t label us at all.
2) Be compassionate and kind toward us, not scared of us. Understand that mental disorders are often adaptive responses formed in childhood in order to survive a difficult environment. Remember that we are more likely to be victims of a crime than to perpetrate one.
3) Recognize our strength. Surviving the double whammy of mental health challenges and social stigma takes a strong constitution. Praise us for what we’ve withstood and acknowledge that we carry that strength forward into our potential.
December 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Norma Jean Wilkes is a small, pleasant-looking woman with a long, shiny blonde bob. On this particular night—Wednesday, December 5—she wore a black orthopedic boot on one foot and a stylish suede shoe on the other. She’d broken her foot several weeks earlier, but that wasn’t going to get in her way. She traveled from High Point to the Greensboro public library to tell her story, broken foot be damned. She could have sat on a comfortable chair beside the podium, but she stayed on her feet instead. For two hours.
You see, Norma Jean is one tough cookie.
She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in her 20s, and it’s taken her for a wild ride. In her talk, “Brain Storms,” co-sponsored by the Mental Health Association in Greensboro and NAMI Guilford, she described rising to ecstatic heights and plummeting to the darkest depths.
“I thought about suicide,” Norma Jean said, describing how she felt during depressive cycles. “It wasn’t that I wanted to die. I just wanted the excruciating pain to stop.”
She compared her manic periods to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of a black-and-white world into brilliant Technicolor. “Everything was intensified,” Norma Jean explained. “I felt like this manic me was who I was always meant to be.”
Mania had its dangers: In the grip of a manic episode, she removed all the tubes from her hospitalized newborn child. Fortunately, no damage was done.
On average, she had a dozen manic episodes a year and an equal number of depressive cycles. She careened from one to the next with no stability in between.
Psychiatrists prescribed one medication after another; nothing worked. Norma Jean tried more than 30 without experiencing any relief. She tried yoga, acupuncture, massage. They made her feel better for a day or two, and then the all-too-familiar symptoms returned. She traveled the familiar, harrowing path from euphoria to despair again and again.
In total desperation, she tried electroconvulsive therapy, which was neither effective nor bearable. It wiped out her memory: at one point she found herself puzzling over a fork, wondering what its use was.
Five years ago, Norma Jean finally found a combination of medication that helped cap her mood swings. That, plus professional help and support from others with bipolar disorder, have kept her on the recovery path. Every day holds its challenges, but, like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, she has turned her pain into something precious: She works part-time at Daymark Recovery as a peer support specialist, providing hope and support to others dealing with mental health challenges. She speaks to audiences, giving them insight into bipolar disorder, answering their questions, and steering them toward mental health resources.
For Norma Jean, recounting her story is cathartic. “Every time I tell my story, some of the internalized stigma and shame lifts,” she said. “This is the way we spread hope.”
November 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Imagine a ballroom full of people who champion mental health recovery. They are mental health professionals, advocates, and consumers. They are open about the states of mind and mood they’ve lived with—depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, you name it.
They’re proud of their strength. Proud of their resilience. Proud to be helping others along the recovery path.
This was the scene at the fourth annual NC One Community Conference, which took place in Winston-Salem on November 14 and 15.
One hundred and fifty people came from across North Carolina to learn about innovative recovery programs, advocacy efforts, state initiatives, and therapeutic activities. Some took part in evening tai chi and yoga; others joined the AA meeting.
In some ways, the conference was one big 12-step meeting. People talked about their addictions, their diagnoses, their struggles and triumphs. They talked about the importance of giving back to others. Encouraging. Pointing out strengths. Modeling responsibility. Most important, believing in a person who has lost every shred of self confidence.
The keynote speakers talked honestly too.
Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, opened the conference. He spoke about his mental breakdown at 19 after joining a commune, and his subsequent struggles with depression.
“I was told, ‘You’ll never recover. You’ll never work,’” he said.
Back then, Harvey noted, the best prognosis for a person with mental illness was symptom maintenance with relapses.
“Now,” he said, “it’s complete recovery.”
The second keynote speaker, Lori Ashcraft, earned multiple graduate degrees and rose steadily in her behavioral health career, moving from social worker to deputy director of community programs for California’s Department of Mental Health. All the while she was privately dealing with severe depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder.
“When you’re struggling and you have to tell lies on top of that, you lose track of yourself pretty fast,” she said.
At the age of the 35, she finally “came out” to her colleagues. That didn’t necessarily make things easier: they began to second-guess her and take care of her. “These are two things that set you back,” Lori noted.
Nevertheless, she continued to be open about her lived experience, and 14 years ago she dived fully into the recovery field. She is now executive director for the Recovery Innovations Recovery Opportunity Center in Arizona.
“I’m so humbled by the work we all do,” she told the ballroom crowd. “And we’re just starting to figure it out. There’s so much more potential.”
Potential. That’s exactly what the conference represented and its attendees personified.
Five years ago there was no such thing as a statewide recovery conference in North Carolina.
Five years from now…just imagine.